Reports are something that we become aware of at a relatively early age through the chalk-dusted medium of the school report and what is worse, while it is not a matter of public record, it is written specifically about you and is intended to be scrutinised by your parents. I seem to recall that mine were, at best, smattered with faint praise…’Smith has made a significant contribution to the school over the past year, regrettably none of it remotely positive’. On Biology: ‘He has an adequate grasp of unicellular organisms but his most notable achievement was surely to avoid arrest on the recent field trip to Camber Sands’. Chemistry proved eventually to be my thing but even with that ‘Smith has shown some encouraging signs but further progress is in doubt following the loss of the science block to the incident involving 15 car batteries wired in series, several sacks of ammonium nitrate and an old water tank filled with a lethal combination of hydrogen peroxide and industrial duty bleach’. I used to imagine the world and everything in it made of balloons so that I could do around deflating the school and the teachers before turning the pin on myself just to hear the immortal phrase ‘you’ve let the school down, you’ve let your teachers down and you’ve let yourself down’.
A further part of the problem I feel is that policy to boost UK exports places too much emphasis upon already huge multinationals selling into a few defined priority markets. It is often cited that our defence industry gains a 20% share of the global market as justification for continuing to support that sector, disproportionally as it turns out. Ann Feltham, a Liberal Democrat supporter, rounds on Vince Cable with figures that show that over 50% of UKTI’s industry-specific staff resource in 2010 was in defence when by her reckoning it accounts for only 1.5% of our total exports and 0.2% of our national labour force.
We would add to this a cultural difficulty in that UKTI centrally has always been and continues to be almost exclusively a government-to-government organisation in its ethos and hence its global activities, something that they readily admitted in a recent meeting I had with them. Again, defence is the main beneficiary of this while the great majority of business-to-business sectors fail to attract an adequate level of co-ordinated activity.
What we are experiencing, therefore, is a greater concentration of effort in a limited number of pre-determined sectors and markets, with SMEs in most sectors finding their own way through the range of often-chargeable services on offer. The FIA Export Council is not alone in having to reposition itself and look beyond UKTI in order to deliver its objectives but also to re-establish itself within the UKTI hierarchy.
Whatever report crosses our desks on its way to the recycling bin, we all must remain aware that there are few, if any, that are wittingly or unwittingly devoid of some element of bias. The dossier on the Iraq WMD threat clearly featured blatantly incorrect information and debate still simmers on whether the original evidence was ‘sexed up’, the Labour government at the time and Lord Hutton saying it wasn’t and pretty well everyone else thinking it was. The same jaundiced eye should be applied to all forms of communication in an age where so much can be transmitted and received and where there is not just more misinformation out there in absolute terms but also proportionally. It is just much easier in many ways to deploy abject nonsense into the media and, with the press going along for the ride, implant perceived wisdom across all four corners of the globe that has no basis in fact. In so many cases in the political arena alone, controlling the agenda comprises getting your version of the truth out first via friendly media and then repeating it at every available opportunity. It’s surprising how well this works and if challenged by inconvenient facts, you simply need the chutzpah to deny them. When Iain Duncan-Smith was questioned by John Humphrys about homelessness in the UK, he claimed the figures had ‘hardly moved’; official data shows it has increased by 27% under the current administration. In the same interview, Duncan-Smith claimed that the benefits cap had been responsible for getting 8,000 into work and when informed that the UK Statistics Authority had said this figure was unsupported, he simply replied 'I believe this [my figures] to be true’. So that’s alright then.
The export-related reports we have referred to here can all be judged in relation to their sources and hence their ultimate purpose and inherent bias. The CBI casts a realistic eye on the challenge ahead, identifying problems and, in some cases, suggesting solutions but even then, their preferred solutions hint at the claim made in the documentary film ‘The Corporation’ that big businesses are basically sociopathic. The NAO is funded by parliament and so while their view on UKTI and the FCO is critical, it offers a rosy view on improvements already happening and so their report treads a typically neutral path of which they are often accused. The ‘Britain Open For Business’ document is a publication which, like most government pronouncements on UK exporting, is carefully positioned to reflect what it is hoped will be achieved rather than what is actually possible. This is the Ministry of Truth writ large in a world where 2+2=5 and in the Radiohead song of that name, ‘it’s the devil’s way now, there is no way out’ just may be true.
Anyone wishing to read an excellent critique of how the global media is subject to falsehoods, distortion and propaganda is referred to Nick Davies’ book entitled ‘Flat Earth News’. Actually, I’m currently in the throes myself of writing a mystery novel…or am I?
FIA, FIRESA Secretary